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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cambodia cancels festival as flood death toll rises

PHNOM PENH — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday cancelled the nation's biggest annual festival as he announced that the death toll from the worst flooding in over a decade had risen to 247.

The funds needed to put on the popular Water Festival, due to take place in the capital from November 9 to 11, would be better spent helping the tens of thousands of families affected, he said.

"If we don't spend the state budget for the (festival) preparations in Phnom Penh... we can save some money to improve the living standards of our people and repair the damage," Hun Sen said in a televised speech.

He also said the precariously high water level of the Tonle Sap river that flows through the city would present a "high risk" to revellers.

More than 270,000 families nationwide have seen their homes or livelihoods waterlogged in two months of flooding caused by heavy rain that has resulted in the Mekong River bursting its banks, according to official estimates.

Hun Sen said the government, the Cambodian Red Cross and several other relief organisations were racing to provide emergency aid to the victims, reaching more than 76,000 families so far.

The country's deadliest floods since 2000, which have inundated some 390,000 hectares (960,000 acres) of rice paddies, represent a huge challenge to impoverished Cambodia but the government has not appealed for international assistance.

In neighbouring Thailand, the worst monsoon floods in decades have left more than 280 people dead.

Cambodia's Water Festival, which marks the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, usually draws two million visitors to the capital to enjoy dragon boat races, fireworks and concerts.

Last year's event ended in tragedy when more than 350 people were killed in a stampede on a packed and narrow bridge.

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